Saturday, April 14, 2018

2019 Guided Cruise

Since 2016 it has been my privilege to guide an annual 10 day cruise on the ship Hjalmar Bjorge, operated by Northern Light Cruising Company. The itinerary for the 2019 cruise has now been set. Departing Oban on July 10, the primary destination will be Rona, which lies 40 nautical miles north of the Butt of Lewis.

Approaching Rona
Guests will need to arrive at Oban around 1230 on July 10, and then Hjalmar Bjorge will depart at 1330 for a crossing to Canna on day one.

The route north from there will depend on prevailing weather conditions. Hopefully, after a night at Canna, we'll cruise up the west of Skye to the Shiant Islands. From there we will head up the east coast of Lewis before making our passage to Rona where, if at all possible, we will spend one or two nights on anchor. The village ruins on Rona are fascinating, and at its heart stand the chapel and cell of Saint Ronan, some of the oldest extant Christian ruins in Britain.

St Ronan's cell and chapel

Rona - looking north from the top
From Rona we will sail west to Sula Sgeir and again, if possible, land there. From here we’ll head south, down the west coast of Lewis and towards the Flannan Islands with an overnight stop in West or East Loch Roag.

Approaching Sula Sgeir

Sula Sgeir

Approaching the Flannans

Landing at the Flannans
There may also be time to visit Little Bernera in Loch Roag, or the island of Scarp, before commencing our return home via the Sound of Harris and back to Oban on the last morning.

Little Bernera

If the weather is kind, possible highlights include the seabird colonies on the Shiant Islands and the gannetry on Sula Sgeir, puffins and more seabirds on the Flannans, plus golden and sea eagles on Scarp. There should be dolphin and other cetacean sightings throughout; in recent years some of better sightings have been in the north of the Hebrides, such as those involving orca and humpback whales (fingers crossed). There are sites of archaeological and historic interest on Canna, the Shiants, North Rona, the Flannan Isles, West Loch Roag and Scarp.

For more information, and to book, refer to the Northern Lights website.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Eilean Mòr of St Charmaig

On our upcoming cruise in June, one of the islands I hope we can land on is tiny Eilean Mòr, which lies a quarter-mile off the coast of Knapdale.

For such a small island (a half-mile long, a quarter-mile wide), it has a large history. There are three sites of interest: the chapel and grave of St Charmaig, the high-cross on the summit of the island, and St Charmaig's hermitage and cave (8th century).

The cave lies at the head of a gully - a dark slot marks its narrow entrance. More pit than cave, it extends ten feet into the rock of the cliff. Its floor lies at the bottom of a vertical drop, six-feet below the entrance. Tradition has it that there was once a passageway from the pit to St Charmaig's cell, some 25 feet to the south.

My only visit to the island was back in 2002. I wanted to see for myself if there was a passageway out of the pit. But I was alone at the time, and after slowly lowering myself about three feet down into the pit I changed my mind and climbed back out, as I did not think I'd be able to pull myself out if I dropped all the way in. I did set a camera up to record my descent - just in case I never got back out (see photo below).

As far as I got before climbing back out of the cave
If we manage to land on Eilean Mòr this coming June there will be 10 of us, so perhaps we'll attempt to drop into the cave.

Below the cave stands the remnants of a dry-stone structure that may have been a beehive cell (with a passage into the pit) that was later altered into pilgrimage chapel for those visiting St Charmaig’s Cave.

Remnants of Cell and Chapel
Eilean Mor is a fascinating island; one far off the beaten path; and I am looking forward to showing our guests on Hjalmar Bjorge St Charmaig's island hermitage in the sea.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Inchkenneth Chapel

One of the possible destinations on our cruise in June is Inchkenneth. I have only been there once, (see Book 1, Chapter 12) and am looking forward to returning. The jewel of the island is the chapel built on the site of St Kenneth's 6th century monastery.

My one visit there was in 2003, and at the time the walled garden (which you can see in the distance in the next photo) was pretty much abandoned. The owner told me they had plans to restore it, so I am looking forward to seeing what they've done.

The next photo shows the altar, which during Boswell and Johnson's visit had an old Celtic hand-bell on it. Sadly the bell has gone missing. Some interesting drawings made of the chapel in 1877 can be found on this CANMORE page.

Set upright against the wall of the chapel is a collection of eight medieval tombstone slabs. And just outside the chapel is the grave of Donald Maclean of Brolas, who died in 1725. If you look close you can see the figure of his dog keeping Maclean's toes warm in the afterlife.

Set amongst the tombstones of the burial ground, which is still in use, is the Inchkenneth cross. Made from a single piece of gray-blue slate, this elegant ring-headed cross stands five feet tall and dates to the sixteenth century. Most of its decoration has worn off over the centuries, but still visible at the bottom of the shaft is a pair of shears. Below them, worn and hardly discernible, is something with bristles, possibly a brush or comb. The significance of the shears and comb may come from their ceremonial use in cutting the tonsure. 

This cross was the same one that Boswell knelt in front of two centuries ago, when visions of ghosts in the dark frightened him, and he had to resort to a rum-rub for an injured foot. In case of injury I had a can of beer in my pack, but if needed the remedy would be applied internally.

Shears and comb on the cross
For such a small island, Inchkenneth has a large history. From the time of saints Columba and Kenneth, to its ownership by the chiefs of the Macleans; its sale to Sir Harold Bolton, then the Mitfords, and finally the Barlows, who still own the island. You can read an interesting article on Inchkenneth that appeared in The Scotsman at this link. It is a delightful island to visit, and I'm looking forward to returning in June.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Lewis/Harris Border

I have walked the Lewis/Harris border. Well, at least I think I've walked the Lewis/Harris border.

The border is artificial, to say the least. It's hard to see on the ground, and even harder to see on the Landranger OS map - because it's not shown there at all. But if you're keen on seeing it on a map, take a look at an 19th century OS map of the area (here is an example). These maps are not at all vague on where the border is; in fact they shout out exactly where it is. This is because the old maps are divided up into shires, and since Lewis is Ross, and Harris is Inverness, the maps that cover the border have vast white spaces for the territory in the opposing shire.

Most tourist only know the border by the signs on the A859 highway - the only road that crosses the border - as it passes through Bogha Glas on the shore of Loch Seaforth. From there the intrepid hiker can climb a foot-path that pretty much follows the border west into the hills. (A description of that walk is described in chapter 17 of book 2.)

Start of the path at Bogha Glas
Going from east to west, the border, starting from Loch Seaforth, follows the stream Amhuinn a Mhuil to the NW for a half-mile to a stone called Clach an Tarpan. From there it follows several straight-line series of highpoints to the west and south until it reaches the stream at the bottom of Glen Lamadale. It then follows a stream called Uillt na Airigh Mhoire two miles west to where it intersects with Loch Chleister. There it makes a dizzying 120 degree right turn to follow the stream Allt a Chlair Bhig. A mile down the stream it passes the amazing intact beehive cells of Allt a Chlair Bhig.

Clair Bhig Beehives - they are in Lewis - photo taken from Harris
From the beehive cells the border continues north along the Clair Bhig stream until it reaches Tota Choinnich (Kenneth's Hut). See book 2 (pages 171-173) for the story of an amazing incident that occurred here

Tota Choinnich
From Kenneth's Hut the border follows the Kinlochresort River for a mile to the sea at Kinlochresort.

Kinlochresort (the hill Beinisbal at upper right)
For that intrepid hiker who has followed the border all the way from Loch Seaforth, reaching Kinlochresort marks the end of ten hard miles of walking. Of course that hiker is now in the middle of the back of beyond - an amazing place to be!  If you make it this far be sure to carry on for another mile to climb Beinisbhal. From its summit you will have a stunning view over the west end of the Lewis/Harris border (highlighted in white in the next photo).

In addition to the view that you'll find atop the hill, 600 feet above the sea, you will also find a cairn relating to the Lewis/Harris border. The cairn is mentioned in the following excerpt from DDC Pochin-Mould's book West Over Sea. To put this excerpt in context, she is describing how the border was determined in the 1850s while she is making a long walk to Kinlochresort in the 1940s.

  Near the sheep fank on the flank of Benisval there is, so they tell me, a stone commemorating the visit of Lord Campbell, Lord Chief Justice in the 1850s. When I splashed through the Kinloch Resort river, I crossed from Harris into Lewis, and it was Lord Campbell's boundary that I went over.
  There was a long dispute concerning the boundary line between Harris and Lewis in this part of the country. Along Loch Seaforth there was no dispute, but here, in the featureless moors, the problem was more difficult. It all began long ago, when a Macleod of Lewis married Kintail's daughter. After a year, he grew tired of her and sent her away, and took a Macleod of Harris' daughter to wife. For her dowry she brought a strip of land upon the borders of Harris in the Kinloch Resort district.  
  As time went by, this piece of land became a subject for dispute. People from Valtos in Lewis would go to make ready their shielings for the summer season and come back to find the Harris people had destroyed all their work. If the Harris men worked on what they claimed as theirs, the Valtos people destroyed it all again.
  Eventually, Seaforth took the case to the courts. Much interesting evidence of old methods of marking the boundary between the two districts was cited. One way was to bury charred peats on the march line. 
  The case dragged on. Seaforth sold the Lewis to Sir James Matheson, and it was he, after the case had reached the House of Lords, who got Lord Campbell to the actual ground. Up Benisval went the Lord Chief Justice and from the top determined the boundary line, taking the shortest route from the head of Loch Resort up the Kinloch Resort River and across to Aline on Loch Seaforth.

The cairn and commemoration stone Pochin-Mould did not find, but is described in her book, is still there to be found, standing next to the trig-pillar on the summit of Benisval (Beinisbhal). However most of the marble tablet is missing. What's left reads:

...of England
....This Cairn

I am guessing the full text on the marble tablet once read something like below. (If anyone knows what the exact text was, please let me know.):

"(To commemorate the visit of Lord Campbell, Lord Chief Justice)? of England
(Sir James Matheson Erected)? This Cairn"

The Lewis/Harris border walk is a classic Hebridean hike. With some planning you can do it in one day; starting at Loch Seaforth and walking out to the north via Morsgail, or to the south via Meavaig. Even better take a tent and sleeping bag; spend the night at Kinlochresort to let your sore legs recover before carrying on; and as you do, and as night falls, close your eyes, listen to the cookoos singing, the snipe drumming, the deer barking, and the sea lapping on the remote shore of a place as far from it all as you can get.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Beehive View

I have always wanted to sleep in one of the beehive cells that are to be found in the remoter parts of Lewis and Harris. They are such beautiful structures, structures that had survived for centuries; and sleeping in one would be like going back in time. Imagine waking to the view below, which is of Loch Bodabhat seen from inside the beehive of Bothan Aird, a mile southeast of Hamanavay.

So far conditions have precluded spending the night in one of these cells. The Bothan Aird cell looked so unstable that I did not feel safe staying inside for long. Another cell I visited would have been good for sleeping - except there was a dead sheep inside. Other cells have had floors of jagged stones fallen from the roof, or the inside was a miazma of mud mixed with loads of sheep poo. In one case the inside of a beautiful cell near Loch a' Sguir was flooded with a foot of accumulated rainwater (next photo). 

There are still quite a few cells I hope to visit. Perhaps one of them will not be too wet, too unstable, or too rocky: a Goldilocks Cell; one just right to lay out a sleeping bag and spend the night. 

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Rona's An Teampull & Rev. Billy Graham

The recent death of the Rev. Billy Graham reminded me of something I was told many years ago. The subject of the discussion was the chapel at the south end of Rona (AKA South Rona). This beautiful little chapel, known as An Teampull, is one of the most enchanting ruins in all the Hebrides. 

In the chapel grounds is a small burial ground. Etched deep into the only readable tombstone is:


What was mentioned in passing about this burial ground is that there is some thought that the Graham family of Rona were ancestors of Rev. Billy Graham. If anyone knows if this is true I would appreciate to hear from you.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Gil Bhigurra - An Oasis in the Pairc

Take a look at the OS map that covers the centre of Pairc, in the southeast of Lewis. And as you do, see if something unusual stands out; for there is something odd there. Don't see it yet?  Here's a hint: look two miles southwest of the head of Loch Sealg. There, in amongst all the swirling brown countour lines, you will see a small bit of green, possibly the only green on the map of Pairc. That bit of green is Gil Bhigurra.

Hiking into Gil Bhigurra

Gil Bhigurra
Gil Bhigurra is a geologic wonder, and a beautiful one at that: a short, narrow gorge, running east-west for about a quarter-mile, that is host to a rare native woodland. The trees growing on its steep sides are a mix of rowan, birch, holly, aspen, and several varieties of willow.

There is no easy way to visit Gil Bhigurra. It is about as remote as you can get in Lewis; lying as it does some five hard miles from the nearest road at Eisgean. I visited it as part of a eight-mile one-way walk with John Randall from Tob Smuaisibhig to Eisgean. The route we took is shown in the following map, and the walk is described in the August 11, 2017 post.

Lying somewhere near, if not in, Gil Bhigurra, is Airigh Nighean an Airgiodach: the shieling of the wealthy daughter. Walking up the south side of the ravine we kept on the lookout for any ruins, but all that could be seen was a cluster of stones down in the ravine that may have been a structure a long time ago.

It would be interesting to know the story of the shieling of the wealthy daughter. A clue to it is that five miles to the northwest lies Sidhean an Airgid; the hill of wealth. Perhaps the daughter found her own Uamh an Oir, one of the fabled caves of gold, high atop Sidhean an Airgid.

When I hiked into Gil Bhigurra in the summer of 2017 it was on an exceptional Hebridean day. The temperature was in the 80s (F); and the gully, gorge, ravine, or whatever you might call Gil Bhigurra, was an amazing sight; a green oasis of tall trees buried in the vast moorland of central Pairc. It would be interesting to know what the Gaelic name means. 'Gil' is a small mountain stream; but I have been unable to decipher 'Bhigurra'. If anyone out there has an idea please let me know.

East end of Gil Bhigurra 

Looking east from Gil Bhigurra to the head of Loch Sealg 
The interior of Pairc is a vast and fascinating area; one usually only visited by folks who stay on the Eisgean estate. But you can see some of it without doing that. Just be courteous, visit outside stalking season, and let the estate know you might be leaving a car near road's end, and that you'll be walking through the grounds of the lodge, which is pretty much the only way to access the track along the northeast shore of Loch Sealg. It is worth the effort to be a good visitor, for many treasures of the Pairc, like Gil Bhigurra, await the hardy hiker who sets out on foot into this remote area.

You can read a little more about Gil Bhigurra in this Woodlands Restoration Survey Report.